Beginner’s Guide to Foraging Edible Flowers, Plants and Mushrooms
Foraging is the act of picking wild food for free. This guide for beginners will help you find edible flowers and plants in nature, woodland and urban spaces.
What does it mean to forage for food?
Foraging is a method that involves locating, identifying and cooking edible plants for consumption. It’s a sustainable practice that’s been routine for many cultures, communities and families since the existence of hunter-gatherer societies. But in recent years, we have the Nordics and Danes to thank for bringing foraging to the fore. Réne Redzepi’s restaurant, Noma, was awarded two Michelin stars for its holistic approach to cultivating high-end produce for its seasonal menu. He himself has been awarded for his efforts in refining the New Nordic Cuisine – a modern food revolution or philosophy that rejects the notion of fast food and industrialisation – choosing locally-sourced ingredients that are fresh, organic and in-season.
”You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients”
– Julia Child
Food is art, so let’s create.
As a nation obsessed with food, it’s rare you’ll find any British home that doesn’t contain a cookbook with smatterings of sticky fingerprints marking the edges of a page. We’re said to like routine and not take risks.
“Cookery is not chemistry. It is an art. It requires instinct and taste rather than exact measurements.”
– Marcel Boulestin
Whatever happened to creativity in the kitchen? The construction of a dish is an art form in itself. Isn’t the custom of sourcing ingredients, preparing the meat, fish and vegetables and assembling the many flavours, spices and herbs synonymous with a painter choosing their palette and creating something from nothing?
The land is plentiful with an abundance of edible goods on offer and free for consumption. It’s time to move beyond packaged fruit and veg and give indigenous vegetables, herbs and flowers the attention and care they deserve.
Think local, think holistic
Here in the UK, hedgerows and woodlands are wonderful places to hunt for wild eats. There are hundreds of edible species ready to be plucked from their root or stem, eaten raw or cooked up, bubbled and boiled to culinary perfection. Regional foods, or better yet, the foods cultivated in your own garden can easily be identified. There are a number of apps and websites that offer reliable information, so you don’t have to worry about accidentally poisoning your loved ones with a wild mushroom risotto.
“Once a year the Hattifatteners collect there before setting out again on their endless foraging expedition round the world. They come from all points of the compass, silent and serious with their small white empty faces, and why they hold this yearly meeting it is difficult to say, as they can neither hear nor speak, and have no object in life but the distant goal of their journey’s end.”
– Tove Jansson
Is foraging legal?
Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act it’s illegal to dig up a plant by the root, even if it’s very common, unless you own the land or have permission.
However, foraging rarely requires you to uproot a plant. You can pick edible flowers, mushrooms and berries. What about wild garlic? It’s illegal to dig up wild garlic if you’re taking the whole bulb (unless you have asked the landowner for their permission). You can, however, harvest the stems, flowers and seed pods using scissors. You can then grow plentiful amounts of wild garlic in your own home, or seed common land in your area so that everyone has free wild garlic to forage for years to come.
Is foraging safe?
When it comes to foraging for edibles it’s important you take care when handling the plants, to ensure you’re protecting both yourself and the environment
Foraging safety guidelines for beginners:
- Pick what you need in times of abundance. Only collect fruits, flowers, seeds and vegetables when they are growing in abundance and there is enough supply. There should be enough crop left for wildlife and general renewal, otherwise there’s a risk of the plant life going extinct in that area.
- Choose your location wisely. Avoid picking near roads or anywhere that might be exposed to high levels of pollution. Similarly, when in comes to edibles such as flowers and berries, aim high to avoid contamination of waste products such as dog and cat urine!
- Mushrooms. For fungi, the mushroom caps should be completely open. If you’re unsure of a particular type, then don’t pick it! Make sure you know exactly what the species looks like before you set out on your quest and avoid collecting small ‘button’ mushrooms altogether. You should follow a mushroom foraging guide and do your research before collecting.
- Respect for food. Be respectful. Take care, especially when collecting fruits, berries, flowers and any dainty plants, fruits and edibles. Uprooting plants entirely is harmful and damaging to the crop.
- Respect for people. If the land is privately owned, abstain from picking or seek permission from the landowner.
“Cooking demands attention, patience, and above all, a respect for the gifts of the earth. It is a form of worship, a way of giving thanks. “
– Judith B. Jones
Wild grub on your doorstep
If you’re new to foraging then May onwards is the best time to start your wild food adventure. During the British summer months there are a vast amount of plants, vegetables and herbs growing in abundance. Start by observing the plants around you. Learn to identify shrubs and flowers by their flower, colour, distinct smell and the habitat that they are likely to grow and thrive.
Wild about wild garlic
Wild garlic is most prevalent during the months of March–July and is usually found in woodland and forest areas where the soil is moist and fertile.
At the bottom of this feature you’ll find for a recipe for foraged wild garlic pesto!
Moonstruck by mushrooms
For wild mushrooms, it’s essential you’re equipped with as much information as possible when it comes to identifying the different types.
There are approximately 15,000 varieties of wild fungi here in the UK, but some of these are inedible and can be poisonous. Use multiple references in your research or book a foraging course to be sure.
“A weed is but an unloved flower”
– Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Nettles (Urtica dioca) are perhaps one of the most denigrated plants currently in existence. Yes they sting, and yes, it’s itchy and painful, but the plant is packed with health properties and benefits that can support a healthy immune system. Search online for nettle soup recipes to see examples of what you can do with this marvellous plant.
Another plant that’s considered more hindrance than delight is the dandelion. Dandelions often grow along hedgerows or in gardens. They’re best to harvest when the yellow flower is in full bloom. This is also a zero-waste plant, meaning you can devour it in its entirety.
“I must have flowers, always, and always.”
– Claude Monet
A fairy feast of edible flowers
Edible flowers can brighten up any salad or tasty sweet treat:
- Nasturtium leaves
Edible flowers: Greg Harwood
Perhaps one of the more surprising edible flowers is the Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora). This show-stopping flower has a strong, fiery flavour and the thick petals provide texture and colour to any dish. Try the flowers infused in vinegar or tossed in a salad for added decadence.
Primrose and cowslip
Primroses and Cowslip are bright and elegant in appearance with their golden buttercup petals and long herbaceous stems. Add them to fruit salads or crystallise the flower heads to decorate cookies and cakes.
Photo: Greg Harwood
You can make sparkling elderflower wine from this common hedgerow flower. You can even dip the flower heads in batter, lightly fry and sprinkle with maple syrup for an incredible dessert.
“Since the thing perhaps is to eat flowers and not be afraid”
– E. Cummings
At a pop-up exhibition in Covent Garden last December, I discovered the private gardens of Christian Louboutin, the distinguished French shoe designer. The event displayed photographs, shrubbery and original carnations from his 13th-century French chateau gardens in the Vendée. Stepping inside the floriated surroundings provoked an instant calm from the bustling streets beyond. It was a sanctuary like no other; the stark contrast of the wild and herbaceous interior with the concrete and urban exterior made quite a statement.
If you’re not yet convinced by the argument for foraging, then consider instead the benefits of nature. Spending time outdoors can be an extremely effective means of easing discontent.
Forage Feast Recipe: Wild Garlic Pesto
This foraging recipe results in a vegan wild garlic pesto that’s deliciously smoky…
- 2 cloves wild garlic
- ½ cup cashew nuts
- ½ cup sun-dried tomatoes
- handful fresh basil
- extra virgin olive oil (a generous glug of the stuff)
- juice of ½ lemon
- pinch of smoked salt
- a little water (add more to blender if ingredients get stuck)
Place all ingredients in a blender, blitz and enjoy. The paste should have a pesto-like consistency.
When it comes to cooking with wild produce, the key is to start with something simple. With experience you can use your instinct and better judgement to discover new plants and cooking techniques.
Foraging might sound like a hobby or leisure activity for the privileged few, but it’s totally free and anyone can partake. As long as there’s land on which things can (and do) grow wild, there are edible foods to enjoy.
Main photo: Greg Harwood